I. To Nereids
“O lovely-faced and pure nymphs,
daughters of Nereus, lord of the deep,
at the bottom of the sea
you frolic and dance,
fifty maidens revel in the waves,
maidens riding on the backs of Tritons,
delighting in animal shapes,
bodies nurtured by the sea,
and in the other dwellers
of Triton’s billowy kingdom.
Your home is the water,
you leap and whirl round the waves
like glistening dolphins
roving the roaring seas.”
Apostolos N Athanassakis and Benjamin M. Wolkow, The Orphic Hymns (Kindle edition)
II. To the Nymphs
“O Nymphs, daughters
of great-hearted Okeanos,
you dwell inside
the earth’s damp caves;
You nurture fruits, you haunt meadows,
O sprightly and pure
travelers of the winding roads,
who delight in caves and grottos.
Swift, light-footed, and clothed in dew,
you frequent springs,
visible and invisible,
in ravines and among flowers
you shout and frisk with Pan
gliding down on rocks,
you hum with clear voice.
O mountain-haunting maidens of the fields,
of gushing springs and of woodlands,
clothed in white, fresh as the breeze,
herds of goats, pastures, splendid fruit,
you protect; wild animals love you.
Though you are tender, cold delights you;
you feed many, you help them grow,
Apostolos N Athanassakis and Benjamin M. Wolkow, The Orphic Hymns (Kindle edition)
In her book Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore, Jennifer Larson ponders upon the ambiguity of the word “numphe” in ancient Greek, which signified a female divinity on the one hand and a bride on the other. Nymphs were divine beings, who were “sexually desirable, free of familial restrictions,” but not necessarily young or virgins. A case in point is Penelope, who was referred to as a nymph in The Odyssey.
Although free and independent, nymphs were also nurturing and protective. The nymphs Ida and Adrasteia nurtured the infant Zeus in a cave on Crete. Nymphs were worshipped as Mothers on Crete:
“There was a tradition of Kretan colonization on Sicily, according to which the Kretans, who were stranded on the island after Minos’ abortive expedition to punish king Kokalos, founded a settlement at Engyon in the interior. This they named after the local spring, and they instituted a cult to ‘the Mothers,’ for whom they built a temple. The Mothers, or Meteres, were said to be the very nymphs who had nurtured Zeus in the Kretan cave and were set into the sky as the greater and lesser Bears.” (1)
In all ancient Greek genealogies, nymphs played a crucial role as divine and mythical ancestors that went back to the period of the Great Flood. This was “a period of proto-civilization that, while harsh and savage, was also in some sense an idealized golden age.” Nymphs, who were predominantly rural rather than urban, were closely intertwined with the features of the landscape, especially rivers, springs, seas, lakes, marshes as well as meadows, mountains and caves. Consequently, they were linked with “gods who have rural or pastoral associations: Dionysus, Hermes, Pan, and Apollo.” They delighted in the company of herdsmen, who enjoyed their protection together with their flocks. They taught mankind the art of beekeeping, thus bringing the gift of civilization. Nymphs were indeed “teachers of the earliest skills and moral values that distinguished civilized humans from bestial savages.” Plutarch wrote that especially Dionysus, the wildest of the gods, needed a large entourage of nymphs “to tame and train him.” There was also a deep affinity between the nymphs and Centaurs, especially Chiron, who was married to the nymph Chariklo, and who, like the nymphs, dwelled in caves and nurtured young heroes.
Nymphs presided over the totality of the landscape with the heavy emphasis on water. The Okeanids were daughters of Okeanos, the primordial river. Nereids were sea nymphs while Naiads presided over fresh water. The Pleiades are also usually considered as nymphs due to their status as primordial mothers. What is more, even “the Muses, Charites, and Horai are groups closely allied to the nymphs, and they fulfill under other names many of the functions otherwise attributed to nymphs (e.g., causing the crops to ripen or producing inspiration).” Nymphs possessed prophetic and healing qualities. Before Apollo took over Delphi, the nymph Daphnis delivered her prophesies there, while Erato, the Arkadian nymph, was known to deliver the prophecies of Pan. The Korykian cave of the nymphs at Delphi was frequented alongside the official Delphic oracle mostly by poor people, who used Astragaloi (“knucklebones”) as a method of divination. Furthermore, nymphs were often cult partners of Apollo’s son, the healer god Asklepius.
Nymphs had a sensual and sensual aura; they abided in “the fertile, moist parts of the landscape,” which “were associated with female anatomy.” They were associated with abundant vegetation and, as hamadryads and dryads, with trees, of which their favourite were the oak, the plane tree and the black poplar, frequently found by rivers and springs. For the Greeks, mountains were “the meeting place of gods and mortals,” where the rules of urban society did not apply and where Dionysus carried out his ecstatic revels. Mountain caves were cult areas especially dedicated to the nymphs. As a matter of fact, any scenic spot with “abundant water, shade, and vegetation” was blessed by the nymphs and imbued with their presence. Such a place was referred to as “locus amoenus” (a pleasant spot) and was believed to endow a visitor with inspiration. In this context the word “numpholeptos” was used, meaning “seized by the nymphs.” It denoted “a heightening of awareness and elevated verbal skills.”
The key role of the Nymphs as custodians of the motherland is beautifully featured in Homer’s Odyssey. There the nymphs “are the island itself,” which Odysseus craves to regain after his protracted meanderings through the seas. He prays at a fountain, surrounded by poplars, where all his ancestors and townspeople had been drawing water and leaving offerings at the altar dedicated to the nymphs. This is a moment of Odysseus’s homecoming (Greek nostos). But before he can truly announce his return and claim what is his own, he spends some time in the Cave of the Nymphs. In his famous essay the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry described the cave as a dark, stony and humid symbol of the sensible world. In their misty and watery cave, the Naiades (sweet water nymphs) are weaving and clothing the souls in bodily energies. Here souls are descending into generation since the moisture is the agent that brings the embodiment of souls.
Another famous Nymph and a cave dweller from The Odyssey is undoubtedly Calypso. She keeps Odysseus concealed in her primordial cave in Ogygia. It is there that the hero gets in touch with the deepest recesses of his soul, enveloped by Calypso’s (the Concealer) fertile feminine darkness. But he refuses the gift of immortality offered to him by this mistress of Life and Death. Gregory Nagy wrote this of Calypso:
“Calypso is keeping Odysseus concealed in her cave. The feelings of attraction associated with the beautiful nymph Calypso are matched by feelings of repulsion evoked by her terrifying name … derived from the verb kaluptein, ‘conceal’: this verb is traditionally used in ritual formulas of burial, and it conveys the idea of consigning the dead to concealment in the realm of darkness and death…” (2)
An encounter with a nymph did not always end well for a mortal. Larson says:
“The nymph’s supernatural power balances or overwhelms the assumed superiority of the male, so that her desires are often central to the narrative.
All the accounts of goddess-mortal unions I have so far discussed have at their root the same male fear of placing oneself at the mercy of a more powerful female (with, perhaps, an attendant unconscious attraction to this idea). The reversal of expected gender roles creates a powerful anxiety that is completely absent when gods have their way with mortal maidens.”
For women, on the other hand, the nymph stands for “a fantasy of total female independence,” “sexual pleasure without the restricting aspects of marriage and, …, without the duties of caring for children.”
Also for the gods such as Pan or Apollo nymphs proved to be elusive. The nymph Syrinx was pursued by Pan and managed to flee by turning into marsh reeds. When Pan sighed with dismay upon the reeds, they produces a plaintive sound, which gave him the idea of fashioning the first panpipes. Thus the pursuit of the nymph led to artistic creation. Similarly, Daphne, who was pursued by Apollo, turned into a laurel leaf, which became a cultural symbol for poets and musicians. In both myths carnal desires were sublimated into artwork. Interestingly, Hermes seemed to have had more luck with the nymphs, who as a rule did not flee from him. His mercurial nature seems to have better suited their desire for freedom.
Though themselves untamed, nymphs presided over the rituals of marriage, fertility and childbirth. In this role they were strongly associated with Hera, the goddess of marriage. Larson quotes another scholar, who argues that in earlier times Hera had been “a powerful nature goddess” and “mistress of animals,” who underwent a process of acculturation. While nymphs were usually depicted as nudes, Hera’s images were predominantly clothed. Yet every year Hera retreated to a sacred spring at Nauplia, where she bathed, thus retrieving her maidenhood and her essential nymph nature.
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(1) Jennifer Larson, Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore, Kindle edition (all the subsequent quotes, unless otherwise indicated, come from this book)
(2) Gregory Nagy, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, Kindle edition